Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Favorites of 2008

Generally my reading and listening are a year or two behind, so these lists are my favorites that I read / listened to in 2008 rather than items which were released this year.

My favorite book of the year was Steven Saylor’s Last Seen in Massilia, another excellent look at life during the waning years of the Roman Republic when Julius Caesar was growing in power. While it was basically a mystery, it was also rich historical fiction as well.

Runner-up historical fiction was Lisa See’s touching Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

My favorite f&sf book was Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year, a semi-autobiographical novel which was also a creepy fantasy. This is the third story of Ford’s which I have really liked in recent years (including his novelette “The Empire of Ice Cream” and the novella “The Cosmology of the Wider World”).

Three recent cds and three older cds were my favorites this year.

Of the recent ones, my favorite was the Foo Fighters’ Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. I have liked all their albums, but this one was even better than the previous ones.

I am a big fan of Tom Petty, but his recent albums were less consistent than those released during his peak decades. So I was very pleased at how good his album Mudcrutch was. It featured his first band prior to forming the Heartbreakers (although it did contain two of his closest collaborators from the latter band).

I am also a fan of David Cousins and his band The Strawbs, and Broken-Hearted Bride was their best album in two decades. The song “Call to Action” was my favorite song of the year.

The older albums I really enjoyed were two jazz fusion bands (Return to Forever’s Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy and the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire) and one progressive rock band (King Crimson’s live Cirkus). A lot of good music.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Prefect

I really enjoyed Alastair Reynolds’ trilogy Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, but for some reason I did not read any his other novels afterwards, only the collection Galactic North, which was equally good. So recently when The SF Book Club had a Buy One Get One Free offer, I decided to order The Prefect as one of the two books. This recent book followed much the same pattern as his earlier trilogy, being basically a thriller set within a well-developed future. Its setting is the same milieu as the Galactic North series where various human confederations banter with each other as well as with spacebound Ultras. But at the core of every Reynolds story, as in this one, are always human emotions and interactions which make his space operas more approachable than most.

Tom Dreyfus is a prefect, a police officer in the Glitter Band, which is a collection of artificial space habitats which are home to millions of humans. As the novel begins, Dreyfus is dealing with two separate issues: a space habitat whose ruler has rigged local elections, and the slaughter of nearly one thousand inhabitants of another space habitat which has been totally destroyed. The former situation seems relatively minor as the habitat has been locked down so that all its inhabitants and visitors are forbidden to leave it temporarily. The latter situation is more dire as the spaceship which seemed responsible immediately fled for the Swarm, which is under the control of the Ultras, so Dreyfus contacts the Ultras and demands the return of the ship.

Meanwhile his assistant Thalia Ng is visiting four space habitats trying to make repairs related to the lockdown when everything goes berserk on the fourth habitat. Suddenly she and Dreyfus are involved in a plot to take over the entire Glitter Band by the mind of a person who has supposedly been dead for eighty years and who is being aided by one of Dreyfus’ superiors.

Reynolds is a master of interweaving plotlines which grow and spread like an elastic octopus. He avoids many of the weaknesses of thrillers, such as he never withholds evidence from his characters to maintain the thrill level. The characters learn things regularly as the case proceeds, and they use the evidence wisely. They do not take foolish emotional actions intended only to forward the plot simplistically. And invariably when I find myself thinking that some threat should not realistically hinder them for long, it doesn’t and Reynolds moves on instead of milking one particularly scenario.

Reynolds has matured as a writer since the Revelation Space trilogy. No longer did he incorporate useless scenes of senseless horror intended to do nothing more than up the thrill ante. It was obvious while reading The Prefect that Reynolds’ characters are guided by the author’s mind, not his own emotions, and that he cares about his readers’ intelligence too much to jack up the emotional ante unrealistically.

Reynolds is also an excellent plotter, so that all the plotlines come together relatively quickly for a 400+ page novel, as well as satisfactorily. Overall, The Prefect was an even better novel than the Revelation Space trilogy, and encouraged me to read more of his recent books.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Odds and Ends

During the school year I have relatively little time to read books, but I need to do some reading every evening to keep myself sane. So rather than review a book here, since I have not completed any for nearly two weeks, I thought a few of you might be interested in what else I have been reading lately.

Last weekend I finished reading the two issues of Worlds of IF from 1964 which I discussed awhile ago. The best story in the issues was Robert F. Young’s “When Time Began.” I do not have a lot of memories of reading Young stories in the 1960s, but I definitely recall “Little Dog Gone” which appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow and was a deserving Hugo nominee. “When Time Began” was not on that level, being mostly an adventure in which a time traveler back to prehistoric times is stunned to meet two youngsters who claim to be escapees from a repressive Martian culture. Still, the story had a strong human focus and was good enough that upon finishing it I immediately went to Fantastic Fiction (, one of my very favorite websites. It lists the entire bibliography of nearby every published writer you can imagine. It listed two collections and several novels by Robert F. Young, including an expansion of “When Time Began.” While they are obviously all long out of print, some of them might be available at used book outlets, particularly at my favorite site Pandora Books (, so I might look a few of them up sometime.

Next I read the current issue of Historical Novels Review, which is much like the Locus of the historical fiction field, filled with articles, interviews and reviews. Interestingly, two of the sub-genres of historical fiction which they cover are Historical Fantasy and Alternate History, which are also considered sub-genres of science fiction by f&sf fans. I can definitely see merit in both designations, so those are definitely areas which fall into the wide overlap between genres (and is another indication of why rigid definitions of any genre are always questionable, even though I am equally guilty of such definitions myself).

In the recent issue of HRN, they also discussed Steampunk as another area of historical fiction, which it certainly is. Somewhere deep in my memory I recall reading in Locus many years ago that its editor Charles Brown originally intended it to review both science fiction and historical fiction. And why does that not surprise me? After all, many people consider the core of science fiction to be history, myself included, and how many sf writers have developed “future histories?”

Speaking of Locus, the December issue arrived this week, so that was my next reading. Certain issues each year interest me the most, and December is one of them since it contains the Forthcoming Books for the next half-year, which is an excellent guide for future buying and reading. There were 7 books listed which I will seriously consider buying in upcoming months:

The Best SF and F of the Year #3 / edited by Jonathan Strahan / March 09
The Empire of Ice Cream / Jeffrey Ford / April 09
Kethani / Eric Brown / April 09
Star Flight / Andre Norton / June 09
Year’s Best SF #26 / edited by Gardner Dozois / July 09
Rise of the Terran Empire / Poul Anderson / July 09
Kiteworld / Keith Roberts / Aug 09

Finally, this weekend I began my vacation reading (even though I still have 2 days of school left next week) with Alastair Reynolds’ The Prefect. This is the first novel of his I am reading since the excellent trilogy Revelation Space / Redemption Ark / Absolution Gap, although I also read his excellent collection Galactic North. I should have this review next week!

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Books to Read

Of all the 250+ books in my collection waiting to be read, the following are those which I am most anxious to read in the near future. Consider these books as the “cream” rising to the top of the reading pile:

The Devil’s Eye / Jack McDevitt
Donnerjack / Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold
The Prefect / Alastair Reynolds
Science Fiction 101 / edited by Robert Silverberg
Sea-Kings of Mars / Leigh Brackett
The Last Witchfinder / James Morrow
The Cider House Rules / John Irving
Empress / Shan Sha
Ivanhoe / Sir Walter Scott
Imperium / Robert Harris
The Scarlet Pimpernel / Baroness Orczy
Spartacus / Howard Fast
The Time It Never Rained / Elmer Kelton
The Body Snatchers and Other Stories / Robert Louis Stevenson

I probably will have time to read 3 books over this year’s very long Christmas vacation. The Devil’s Eye is a definite, since Jack McDevitt is probably my favorite current writer. That leaves 2 other books from the above list of 5 f&sf books and 8 historical fictions. And the winner is...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

a WORLDS OF IF mystery

After discovering science fiction on Christmas Day, 1962, I read Worlds of IF, Galaxy and Worlds of Tomorrow until early in 1964 at which time I stopped reading all three of them (for reasons not worth discussing here). I resumed reading all three in early 1966 and continued to do so until, one by one, they all ceased publication.

In the mid-1970s I completed my collections of the three magazines by buying used copies of the missing issues, but in the crush of new magazines I kept buying until the mid-1990s, I never read those issues. So recently I have been slowly doing so. I have been mostly reading Worlds of IF because I have also been reading the 1950s issues of Galaxy which I got from Chester Cuthbert about a decade ago to complete my collection of that magazine. IF is a good magazine to read when I want light reading without any deep involvement, since it printed mostly adventures. This weekend I have been reading the November and December, 1964 issues.

I started with the serial, Keith Laumer’s The Hounds of Hell, and I quit about 25 pages into it. I never particularly liked Laumer’s fiction. His Retief stories, which appeared in more than half the issues of IF, were unfunny, somewhat insulting in their stupidity and, without seeming too politically correct, almost racist in how they belittled every alien race Retief encountered. The Hounds of Hell was not a Retief story, but it was a military adventure–which mentioned Bolos, so I assume it was the start of that series–which bored me considerably.

The novelettes in the two issues were better, by such writers as Thomas M. Disch–then a newcomer in the field–Frederik Pohl, the underrated Robert F. Young, and J.T. McIntosh, another Galaxy/IF regular. But what most struck my eye was the announcement on the bottom of page 39 in the December issue announcing the feature story in the January, 1965 issue, “the great new novel by Hugo-winning Jack Lance”, The Killing Machine. The author’s name was obviously a misspelling of Jack Vance, since the novel was the second Demon Princes novel, following closely after The Star King, which was serialized in the December 1963 and February 1964 issues of Galaxy. I’ve read all the Demon Prince novels in book form which, at their best, are among Vance’s best novels. The third novel in the series, The Palace of Love, was serialized in Galaxy from October 1966 through February 1967.

The most interesting part of the announcement is that The Killing Machine never appeared in Worlds of IF. So why was it advertised there? Neither did it appear in Galaxy as the other two Demon Prince novels did. Did Vance withdraw the novel for some reason, perhaps because it was not scheduled to appear in Galaxy, the flagship of the magazines, but in the lesser Worlds of IF instead? Or perhaps he did not complete it on time? Or might there have been something in it offensive to either editor Fred Pohl or the publisher of Worlds of IF?

Replacing it in the next few issues of IF was the serial Starchild, by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson, which might have been available as an emergency replacement for The Killing Machine since it was editor-co-written

If any of my readers correspond with Frederik Pohl, you might want to ask him about that situation. Just another of science fiction’s little unsolved mysteries.